Here’s how to plan a bucket list trip to Iceland on a tight budget

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Everyone has a few bucket list trips they’re excited to go on. Whether you’re desperate to go on a safari, see the Great Barrier Reef or trek up Mount Everest (okay, maybe not Everest), everyone has at least a few places they’re dying to go. And Iceland was at the top of my list.

Traveling is, of course, no cheap expense, so naturally, it takes a lot of time to plan a trip and budget for it. And seeing as Iceland is notoriously expensive, I knew I would need to be smart about what I saved on and what I splurged on when visiting the gorgeous country.

First up, flights!

Credit: PLAY

Scheduling flights is typically the first step after picking your destination. For me, PLAY was the obvious airline to book with.

PLAY is a low-cost airline that operates flights between Iceland, Europe, and North America. The airline was founded in 2019 in Reykjavik with sustainability and safety in mind, offering basic flights at wallet-friendly prices. As they put it: “Pay less, play more.”

PLAY departs from four U.S. airports, including Baltimore (BWI), Boston (BOS), New York Stewart (SWF) and Washington, D.C. (IAD), to Iceland and 22 European destinations. I flew directly from SWF to Keflavík International Airport and had a seamless experience. Not only was the entire PLAY cabin crew incredibly friendly and helpful but on both my flights to and from, we boarded right on time and arrived at the destination early!

Credit: PLAY

Plus, while PLAY touts itself as being “streamlined” and “no-frills,” both planes I experienced were extremely clean and comfortable, with ample leg room. I’m tall and had plenty of room in my seat for myself as well as my tote bag.

As with many other airlines, you can add extra amenities to your ticket, such as priority boarding, seat selection, meals and additional baggage. With PLAY Basic fares (the cheapest option), a personal item is included. If you can believe it, flights to Iceland start as low as $175 one way. According to the brand, “on-time performance, simplicity, happiness and low prices are the airline’s core principles,” so PLAY is definitely the move if you’re looking to save on airfare.

Getting around Reykjavik

Reykjavik’s rainbow road with Hallgrimskirkja in the background.
Credit: Julia Webb for ITK

As far as getting around the city of Reykjavik, walking and buses are your (affordable) friends. You won’t find much luck with apps like Uber or Lyft, and cabs can get pricey, so save your cash and hop on the bus — or give yourself enough time to walk.

Thanks to the colorful buildings, bustling bakeries and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, walking was my preferred way to get around the city. I stayed at the beautiful Grandi by Center Hotels, a great home base. It was comfortable and clean and had a gorgeous restaurant on the main floor (we’ll get to food shortly!).

Some must-see highlights when walking around Reykjavik include Hallgrimskirkja and the Sun Voyager. Hallgrimskirkja is a stunning modern cathedral you can pay to go to the top of. It’s only about $10 and has one of the best views in the city, so I’d highly recommend it. If you prefer to stay on the ground, you can also walk through it free of charge when there aren’t any services. The Sun Voyager is a steel boat sculpture near the water and is pretty impressive.

Can’t-miss excursions

The Gullfoss Waterfall, a highlight of the Golden Circle tour.
Credit: Julia Webb for ITK

While in Iceland, you should book excursions to see the country beyond Reykjavik. This is where you’ll want to splurge. There are tons of awesome excursions in Iceland that’ll take you to see highlights like the Golden Circle, out into the national park late at night to view (hopefully!) the Northern Lights, to the highlands or even whale watching.

I toured with Reykjavik Excursions and each outing was incredible. From their knowledgeable tour guides to their comfortable coach buses (see what I mean about buses?), each excursion was well worth it. I took advantage of The Golden Circle & Friðheimar Greenhouse tour, as well as the Northern Lights tour.

Iceland is known for its hot springs and geothermal baths, too, so if you’re looking for something more relaxing (but still unique), an afternoon at Sky Lagoon or the Blue Lagoon might be right up your alley.

Where to eat

The bar at Grandi Hotel, pastries at Brikk and Monkeys.
Credit: Julia Webb for ITK

Restaurants: If you’re like me and love to eat, I’d recommend splurging on food. The fish in Iceland is especially fresh and delicious!

I had dinner at three different restaurants in Reykjavik and would recommend all of them if you’re looking for nicer meals. Dinner is definitely more worth it to me to splurge on than lunch or breakfast. You can even prioritize a hotel that provides breakfast with your stay and just grab a quick lunch when you’re out to keep costs minimal.

My first dinner was at Héðinn Kitchen in the Grandi Hotel, which was delicious. The service was lovely, and the lamb, in particular, was fantastic. The following night I went to Monkeys in town and had amazing tiradito and dumplings. The colorful, jungle-themed interior was also impressive (pictured above on the right). My final dinner was at the cozy Fish Company, where I had fabulous sushi (see what I mean about lots of great fish?).

Bakeries: There is no shortage of sweet treats and pastries in Reykjavik. While you can’t go wrong, my favorite bakeries I visited included Braud & CoSandholt and Brikk.

If you’ve been eager to go to Iceland but are worried about the cost, trust me — you can do it on a budget! If you plan smartly and pick where you’ll splurge and where you’ll save, you’ll have an unforgettable trip that won’t break the bank.

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